Friday, August 15, 2008

Friedkin Friday: Sorcerer (1977)

In the mid-1970s, William Friedkin -- a director at the top of his game following such box-office blockbusters as The French Connection (1971) and The Exorcist (1973) -- led an international cast and crew (headlined by Roy Scheider) deep into the jungle to make his next feature. It was a remake of the 1953 Yves Montand film, The Wages of Fear, but re-titled Sorcerer for modern consumption.

The film was plagued by myriad difficulties: the first director of photography got fired half-way through, Friedkin reportedly didn't get along well with star Scheider (he'd wanted Steve McQueen for the lead...), and the movie went dramatically over budget (ballooning in cost from 15 to 21 million)

The film's luck didn't improve with the timing of the premiere. Sorcerer was released in the summer of 1977 - the summer of a little movie called Star Wars -- and not surprisingly, this gritty and realistic Friedkin effort promptly bombed with critics and audiences, grossing less than 10 million at the box office.

However, thanks to the advent of home video in the 1980s, Sorcerer has earned a cult following over the last few decades, and has recently been excavated for serious study by a new generation of film scholars. Many critics now insist this is Friedkin's "lost masterpiece," (an opinion the director reportedly shares), and one that suffered unduly from the fact that it didn't fit in with a surprise shift in movie trends (from anti-heroes like Dirty Harry, Harry Caul, and Popeye Doyle to more innocent "nostalgia" fare like Star Wars).

depicts the gritty, unromantic story of four men, all from different countries, who - because of fate's whimsy - end up together in an unnamed South American country taking on a very dangerous assignment...for the money. One man is an assassin, having arrived from a job in Vera Cruz. Another is a Palestinian bomber, escaped from Israel. A French man named Serrano -- one involved in fraud -- is the third man. Finally, American Jack Scanlon from Queens (Roy Scheider), who was recently involved (and injured) in a robbery, is our last protagonist, though I use that term loosely here.

These four anti-heroes - taciturn, secretive and dangerous - have been selected (after proving their driving skills...) by an oil company man to transport two trucks worth of damaged dynamite to a raging oil fire some two-hundred miles distant. The dynamite is so volatile, however (the nitroglycerin is actually leaking...) it can't be flown to the site by helicopter or plane.

Instead, the four men (two to a truck), drive old vehicles (named "Sorcerer" and "Lazaro") across the most treacherous jungle landscape you can imagine in hopes of collecting 8,000 pesos. Among the colorful obstacles: a suspension bridge with several floor planks missing (traversed by the trucks - naturally - during floods and a pounding rain storm), armed guerrillas, fallen trees, and more.

In the end, just one man survives the journey, but it turns out he's a marked man anyway, fate having long ago conspired against the entire quartet; the survivor included.

I've written in previous Friedkin Friday entries about this director's uncanny penchant (and skill) in creating narratives that feel very authentic; a quality I connect with the artist's early history making documentaries. What enlivens Sorcerer so powerfully is the "reality" of death that Friedkin crafts in the film. What I mean by this statement is that the violence is sudden, shocking, brief and utterly horrifying. It's a punctuation, not a sentence; a burst of terror, not a sustained fireworks show. There's nothing glamorous or stereotypically Hollywood about how the violence is portrayed, and so when brutal things happen, it's actually traumatic.

For instance, a car accident early in the film is staged with stunning ferocity and accuracy (reportedly a dozen cars were pulped before Friedkin was satisfied with how it looked), and the accident leaves a lingering impact on the psyche. Roy Scheider -- the getaway driver -- escapes the scene, a chaotic wreckage of metal, blood, water and (stolen) money.

Later, an explosion at an oil well is just as jarring and upsetting. It's not a typical movie explosion, but something horrific, gruesome and bracing. This style of filmmaking is disturbing, to be certain, but it raises the stakes and helps to make the movie extremely suspenseful. Here, violent actions have consequences and it's a bloody, ugly world.

Which brings us to another quality of the film: a finely etched sense of place; of location. In the South American (fictional) country where the bulk of the film occurs, Friedkin spares us nothing. We see squalor. We see poverty. We see death and desperation. This is appropriate, pf course, because all four protagonists are desperate men...where else can they go? Their last stop before death is a kind of purgatory; a miserable place where they hope to escape and start again.

The exceptional location detail (no studio work here...) also serves to hone some of Friedkin's underlying thematic points. In one unbelievably affecting and upsetting scene, Friedkin depicts rioting locals as they receive their dead following the fire at the American oil well. The corpses are wrapped (barely) in plastic. and hoisted off a pick-up truck, where they are left to the mourning families. The feeling here is not of a specific country per se, but of the authentic "Third World" in general, and specifically the manner that America (and American companies) exploit the resources (and people) there to line their own pockets. When these people die, they are dying for pennies...but it's the only work in town. This is also an important clue as to the nature of the oil company...and what it will do (or won't do...) to save money.

The first half of Sorcerer lingers a bit long on elaborate introductions of each of the four anti-heroes (in Vera Cruz, Jerusalem, Paris and New Jersey), before they arrive at their community fate in the jungle, but the last half of the film is a whopper: a series of tour-de-force set-pieces that will push you to the edge of your seat. One set-piece, involving nitroglycerin and a fallen tree, is handled brilliantly with a minimum of dialogue and some good performances, but the absolute show-stopper (pictured on the movie poster above...) is the crossing of that rickety old suspension bridge; water raging below; wind blowing it from side to side like a swing; rain falling incessantly. It's here that Friedkin is able to visualize and enunciate some of the core idea of the film most successfully, particularly that no one can escape fate; and perhaps more importantly; no one can explain fate.

Two trucks (carrying the unstable substance...) must pass across this bridge, in relatively short order. Four men aboard two trucks. Nature against them. Fate against them. The tension mounts to a mind-blowing level as natural debris blows across the bridge, as the floor planks buckle, as the bridge sways from side to side and a truck starts to list, then actually tip over, 10 degrees...20 degrees... Then the rope holding-up the bridge starts slowly - ever so slowly - to fray. And all the while, nestled in the rear of the truck is that unstable dynamite, just ready to explode if the truck takes too big a bump.

How can I put this so it won't sound like hyperbole? This is an absolutely amazing, heart-stopping sequence, and even if you don't like William Friedkin, you should see Sorcerer just for this virtuoso scene. Hitchcock couldn't have staged it better. It's the reason we see films: to be thrilled; to be captivated; to bite our nails. I haven't seen a great scene like this in a movie in a long, long will absolutely jangle your nerves. Kathryn couldn't stay sitting down on the sofa while it continued, and continued, and continued...because it is absolutely nail-biting not just in intensity, but in the way it builds to a crescendo.

Some survive the truck trip in Sorcerer, some don't, but what I find most fascinating about the film is that even at the end of the hellish ride, there is no sense of release; no feeling of catharsis. Looking like a zombie (and clearly suffering from post-traumatic stress), the final survivor -- sans a vehicle of any kind -- carries the last box of dynamite to the oil well in his tired arms, barely able to walk. He is white-faced, ghostly. And the camp he walks into is Hell itself, a giant plume of apricot flame illuminating the night forest and night sky. This character survives the journey, but the end of the film makes plain that fate has marked him, just like his dead compatriots.

And that death is catching up with him. Fast. He is a zombie. He died before he began the trip. Someone else saw to that.

Sorcerer transmits this plot point without dialogue, without explanation. You have to pay close attention to the last moments of the film to understand what is going to happen to this man; and the conspiracy that has risen up around him to prevent him from collecting his hard-earned money. There's no indication of this is what is said; only in the images, and in Friedkin's ruthless compositions and editing.

Why is this movie called "Sorcerer?" For the truck? Well, Friedkin has stated that in this film fate is the "sorcerer," wielding it's terrifying magic, and that notion - of fate as sinister, mysterious, inscrutable wizard - is what ultimately makes this a movie worth remembering. Why do some people survive? Why are some obstacles traversed while others are not? Why do some people die when they do? Why do others survive? Why blow out at inopportune times? How has destiny marked these men? How does it mark us?

There are no answers in this existentialist, gritty adventure. There are no heroes, either. And definitely no happy endings.

In the final analysis, ironically, it was fate that also played a cruel trick on this film (not to mention Friedkin, whose career as an A-list director never fully recovered from Sorcerer's failure with critics and audiences). Yep...a celebrated director crafted a brilliant, timeless adventure film, one true to the spirit of the reigning 1970s anti-heroes, but as it turns out, people were watching space princesses, wookies and light saber duels.
Who saw that coming?


  1. It's always nice to see this sorely neglected film get some attention. I bought a used VHS copy on a whim many years ago and couldn't believe I hadn't heard more about it.... I immediately told everyone I knew to go and watch it. I even loaned out the VHS copy to my grandfather... who has never forgiven me. He said he hadn't had such a nerve-wracking experience in years and made me promise never to give him another movie like that.

  2. Never seen the film but I've had the Tangerine Dream music on Vinyl and CD for ages, I'll have to order the DVD, though I noticed it's only in 4.3 and not 1:85-1 :( I used that track on the trailer on a show reel I had on my blog for a while and then somebody through You Tube made me take it down as the music is copyright of UMG. They picked on me yet there's whole films and TV shows posted up there on You Tube !!

  3. Anonymous7:43 PM

    This is wierd that you talk about this now- a few weeks ago on the Cinemagic channel on XM I came in the middle of this, and was mightily confused. The screen read Sorcerer, but the dialogue was al about bombs and from the modern age???

    Thanks for laying my mind to rest- now I need to see this!

    And btw- the trailer music here? I keep expecting to hear the narrator say "The Baseball Furies. The Turnbull AC's...and teh Warriors!!!"

  4. Great movie and one of my favorite movie posters. Of course I was convinced it was a horror movie when I first saw an ad for it in the newspaper as a kid. Great soundtrack too.

  5. Anonymous4:13 PM

    I remewmber all the hype about this film when it first came out (I was 27, and a graduate student at the time). As Gone with the Wind is perhaps the best film of all time, I would rate the Sorcerer (31 years after the fact) as one of the worst. The film begins like a rush, full of action arousing interest. Much of the rest of the film is quite depressing, and left me thinking, "what the hell was that all about"???


  6. Anonymous8:57 PM

    Are you going to type that same nonsense under every Sorcerer review, that you can find, Dan?

    Change the record.


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